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Sunday, November 4, 2007

History of the Peloponnesian Wars

I finished Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars within the last month. I started it a couple times over the years and if it weren’t for really long flights and airport waits between Newark, NJ, and Hyderabad, India, I probably never would have got it done.

1. Am I the only guy that didn’t know the history ends at the twenty-first year of that thirty-year war? It was embarrassing. For a minute I wondered if there was a second volume I forgot to bring with me.

2. It sure is easier to take over an enemy if you can get some of the enemy’s own citizens to help. The number of cities that fell through the treachery of cabals and factions during that long-ago war (and since then, too, I’m sure) was truly eye-opening.

3. The Lacedaemonians don’t really come off that badly in the history. I’ve heard all about the capricious Helot murdering, etc., and Thucydides, an Athenian after all, occasionally remembers to mention some sort of depravity of the Spartan society but the fact is the Lacedaemonians came across as sensible men that had a cold-eyed view of how easily wars could go wrong, and how dangerous it was to go to war. They seemed to be mostly very careful in their decisions and limited in their aims.

4. That Alcibiades. What an A-hole.

1 comment:

Glenn said...

I read an excerpt from the Peloponnesian Wars yesterday, quoted in The Book of War, edited by John Keegan. The passage was drawn from the scene in which the Athenian ambassadors meet with the council of the Melians.

In light of the discussion of "realism" on my blog, Knight's Castle, it is interesting to find the attitude of realism expressed so nicely by the words Thucydides supplies for the Athenian envoys. (I find the word "attitude" more exact than "theory," in this case.) The Athenians express the fundamental theorem of realism in these words: "But out of those things which we both of us do really think, let us go through with that which is feasible; both you and we knowing, that in human disputation justice is then only agreed on when the necessity is equal; whereas they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get." (Trans. Thomas Hobbes, 1629, ed. Richard Schlatter, 1975, p.379.)

(I use here the translation of Thomas Hobbes, rather than that provided by Keegan in The Book of War.)